The Week In Radio: Small wonders that should be spared the axe

Jane Thynne
Thursday 23 September 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


This week the new controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, settled into one of the best jobs in the British media. She has had a long summer to decide what she will bring to the cultural treasure-house, but to be honest, what everyone really wants to know is, what will she cull? Which programmes will be making their way to broadcasting Dignitas? Can Quote Unquote, the Methuselah of game shows, continue to defy its listen-by date? What possible rationale allows You and Yours to run for a full hour? And will she be the one to think the unthinkable on Thought for the Day?

Axing anything is a thankless task in the face of Radio 4's watchful and justifiably conservative audience. You could get less grief decimating the NHS budget than Mark Damazer had for daring to chop the "UK Theme" tune, a brief medley of folk tunes, which went out at the very crack of dawn. Even Tony Blair joined in that furore with a soundbite about patriotism. But with a rich crop of regulars returning on top form in September, now may be just the time for quiet pruning, notably in the areas of comedy and drama. Recent arrivals like Andrew Lawrence's What to Do If You're Not Like Everybody Else, now squeezed to a late-night graveyard slot, and Julie Mayhew's Stopgap suggest a willingness to introduce new blood, but too often you find yourself mystified as studio audiences roar at dud jokes for a heart-sinking half-hour.

Yet while you can often find a dull half-hour, Radio 4's quarter-hour slots are invariably imaginative. Perhaps because controllers think we can only take information in tiny doses, good things – like A History of the World in a 100 Objects – seem to come in small packages. This week's 15- minute, tea-time slot Key Matters is quite the most gloriously informative programme I have heard for some time, exploring the effect musical keys have on mood, so that even musical ignoramuses, as I can testify, emerge feeling enlightened and civilised. Mozart's Clarinet Quintet and Abba's "Dancing Queen" have A major in common, for example, because at 440 vibrations a second, the key is optimistic "music without shadow". Perhaps because, as the pianist Jonathan Cohen told Ivan Hewett, "the scales are easy for the hand, so the music flows well." The cellist Philip Sheppard explained how the "grim and fateful" E minor places "a great psychological burden on the cello" so that when he plays Elgar's concerto "the cello is fighting against those chords, it's not comfortable, you can feel it shaking between your legs."

The 15-minute drama slot on Woman's Hour is also going strong this week with Hysteria, by Steve Chambers, about a woman who begins to believe that her husband may be a serial killer of prostitutes. Gripping and believable, the play was developed at the Bore Place workshop with the aim of telling a contemporary story with a small cast, and is perfectly suited to the episodic delivery of small, delicious chunks.

One area where Gwyneth Williams can rest easy is science, where the network has genuinely led the way in opening up previously inaccessible subjects to a general audience. Archive on 4 on Richard Feynman, for example, was an entertaining look at the most important physicist since Einstein. Though as one student said, Feynman's lectures always had the "Chinese meal effect" whereby for a moment you really understood quantum physics, only to realise later that you knew next to nothing. Much credit in science goes to Melvyn Bragg, who kicks off a typically mind-boggling new season of In Our Time today discussing imaginary numbers with Marcus du Sautoy. I'm sure this refusal to compromise on the intellectual level of the network has helped bring Radio 4's listenership to an all-time high. So, Miss Williams, no pressure then.

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